Yes, Momma Files fans, here I am - blogging for the second day in a row! It's just one of the many benefits of Jack having started preschool. I am so elated right now, because I just dropped Jack off at his school and he did not cry at all!! I was surprised and psyched, and I ran out of there as fast as I could, lest I jinx it. He did look a little anxious and went straight to Miss Mandy for a cuddle as I left, but not crying is a HUGE step in my book. Since I am feeling so positive and successful at this point, I thought I'd share some things that worked for us in this whole, scary starting preschool and being away from Momma thing.
Young children can't tell time, so they know what happens next based on routine, i.e., they don't know they nap at noon, but they do know nap comes right after lunch. Part of the anxiety surrounding starting school is the unpredictability of it from the child's point of view. School is a brand new world for them. They don't know what order the school activities occur in or when Momma is coming to pick them up. You create routine so your child can find comfort in what comes next. Incidentally, it occurred to me today that, no matter how carefully you have prepared your child for starting school, some anxiety is inevitable, as it takes time to establish routines Here's what we do:
The night before a school day, we lay out Jack's school clothes in the bathroom. This cuts down on prep time the next morning and helps Jack understand that the next day is a school day. We then check his backpack, which we keep in a specific place by the door. I have Jack make sure everything he needs the next day is in there. I ask, "Do you have your extra clothes?" He hollers, "yes!" Me: snack? Jack: yes! Me: tap shoes? Jack: yes! Then we zip it all back up. We do this even if I know everything is there. The idea is not only to make sure he has what he needs for school but to help Jack begin to take responsibility for his own things.
The morning of a school day starts out very regimented in our house. We get up, get dressed, and brush teeth before going downstairs to eat breakfast and feed the dog. Having prepared everything else the night before allows the time after breakfast to be relaxed. With everything done and Jack all ready for school, we usually have twenty or thirty minutes of free time. I make a point to sit on the floor and play with him instead of getting distracted by laundry or dishes or whatnot. This way, the time right before we leave for school is calm, fun and positive and Jack gets some quality Momma time.
On the way to school, Jack usually has a snack in the car. He's not that into breakfast, so I feel better if he's eaten something before I drop him off. Instant breakfast (the no sugar added variety) is a favorite car snack. With a lid and a straw, it's not too messy and Jack usually downs it pretty quickly on the fifteen minute drive. While in the car, I usually tell Jack a story or we chat about things we see on the way. I also tell him what I'll be doing and where I'll be while he's at school. I was surprised he cared about this, but after a couple of days at school where he constantly asked Miss Mandy, "Where's Momma?" and "What's she doing?" I realized he found some comfort in knowing what I was up to during his school time.
When we get to school, we walk in the front door and wave to Miss Mandy in the classroom as we head down the hall to the bathroom. This one last pit stop gives Jack time to adjust to the fact that I am about to leave and has him starting his school day comfortably pottied. Next, we take his shoes off at the classroom door (Something I love about his school is that they let the kids go barefoot.) We then walk into the classroom, put his backpack in his cubby, I give him a kiss and a hug and say, "see you after school!" Then I leave as he goes to cuddle and talk in Miss Mandy's lap for a bit.
A Few Keys to Success
Talk about school ahead of time, both before you enroll your child and the day before a school day. Keep it casual, though. For example, before enrollment, you might visit the school and mention, "This is a fun place! Some day you'll go to school here." Before a school day, you might talk about the teacher or about what activities your child will do at school. Talking about it too much, though, can create anxiety It's very different from child to child, so keep conversation about school short and light and don't force it if your child doesn't want to talk about it. It's good, as well, to acknowledge your child's concerns and fears. When Jack seems nervous about school, I say something like, "Are you worried about Momma leaving?" When he says, "yes," I try to acknowledge that I know it's hard for him to be away from me, but that I look forward to picking him up and hearing about all the great things he's done at school. This reassures him I'm coming back and reminds him there's fun stuff to do at school, even without me there. I also want him to know it's okay to feel sad or anxious and that we can talk about it.
Routine should be simple, comforting and predictable for your child. It will take a couple of weeks or so for your child to recognize the routine and be able to know what's next. You can help by reminding him along the way. For example: "After we use the potty, we're going to the classroom."
Construct your morning routine before school to promote calmness. This may mean getting up earlier or leaving the house earlier, just so you aren't in a rush, even in the face of the unexpected, i.e., your kiddo spills his Instant Breakfast all over the car, you accidentally throw your keys in the recycle bin or the dog throws up on the rug five minutes before you have to leave. We all have, "one of those mornings," on occasion, but careful planning and allowing enough time will minimize these.
Pick your drop-off time thoughtfully. Most schools have a window of time in which they prefer you drop off your child. I discovered through trial and error there are fewer children coming into Jack's classroom on the earlier end of this window. If I drop him off during this earlier slow time, there is less hustle and bustle, and Miss Mandy has more time to attend to Jack, which makes for a smoother transition.
Do not sneak out. Sometimes it would seem easier just to slip out the door without saying goodbye, especially if your child is involved in play, but in doing this, you're setting your child up for a meltdown later when he discovers you're gone. The next time, he may not want to separate from you, because he's anxious not knowing when you'll leave. Remember, predictability is key.
When you drop your child off DO NOT LINGER. I can't stress this one enough. As a parent it is incredibly hard to leave your child when he's crying, but he will turn it off a lot faster if you don't draw out your leaving. Much of the stress a child feels at drop off surrounds the anticipation of your leaving, not the actual fact of your being gone. So, as hard as it is, make yourself follow your ritual, give that quick kiss, hug and reassurance and leave...smiling. Save your own tears for the parking lot. Your child needs to see you trust the people with whom he's being left in order to develop his own trust. I have a friend whose daughter is in Jack's class. Since she gets there after we do, she sometimes calls me to report how Jack was doing when she got there. This has been great, because it allows me to relax, knowing that he did actually calm down after I left.
Table special events until your child is used to school. He will get used to school a lot faster if everything is very consistent in the beginning. You may eventually like to volunteer your time in the classroom or pick your child up early for a special event, but save these things until after he's comfortable with his new school - probably anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
Every child is different, and you may have to experiment some to find out what works for yours. For Jack, the going to the bathroom right before entering the classroom works well, but for another child, that might be too much time in which to become anxious before Mom leaves. Some children do well when the parent takes time to get them involved in play before leaving. That way, he's a little distracted and having fun when Mom says goodbye. Take your cues from your kiddo in finding what works.
It takes time. This is something I had to tell myself over and over again. The first day of school may not go smoothly, nor the second or third. But once your child is used to the rituals and routines surrounding a school day, and he realizes that his teachers are trustworthy people who are going to make sure his needs are met, things will get better. During the first couple of weeks of school, I questioned my decision to start Jack in preschool. Was he really ready to spend the time away from me? I agonized over whether or not I chose the right program. I trusted the staff and school, but there is always the question of fit - even if it is a good place, is it the right place for my kiddo? I promised myself I'd give it at least six weeks, though. And now, after three weeks of school, things are really looking good.
A Few Practical Notes
Most of this comes from my experience as a preschool teacher. There are some things you can do to minimize the stress of school for you, your child AND the teacher.
Label everything. Jackets in particular have a way of disappearing, and young children do not always recognize their own clothing. A tip I learned from my mom: You can put just your last name on items that may end up being handed down to a younger sibling. So, put a permanent marker by the door and label anything you'd want back!
Provide extra clothes. This is especially pertinent if your child is potty training. It's much easier for a teacher to pull a child's extra clothes out of his own back back than to hunt through a box full of extras trying to find something that will fit. It's also less stressful for your child to have his own clothes to put on after a potty accident. Did I mention you should label these clothes with your child's name?
Be on the same side as the teacher. If the classroom rule is that no toys from home are allowed, don't tell your child, "It's fine with me, but your teacher doesn't want you to." This puts the teacher in the unfortunate position of "bad cop," and makes your child's cooperation with him/her less likely. It's fine, though, to have the teacher reinforce the rules, i.e. "Remember, we have to leave your toys from home in your backpack, right Miss Mandy?"
Develop a relationship with your child's teacher. In a good school, the teacher will communicate with you about your child, regardless, but you can make that easier for her by being accessible. Make sure the school has your current phone numbers and email address on file. Tell your child's teacher key things at drop-off, like about the fire truck that woke the whole family up in the middle of the night. This will help the teacher understand why your child might be a little tired and give her something to chat with your child about as she helps him transition into his school day. Volunteer, if you can, whether that's spending time in the classroom, cutting things out at home or donating various items. At the very least, even if you're not particularly social, make a point to look the teacher in the eye, smile and say, "hi," during drop-off and pick-up times. You probably want to save longer conversations for the phone, email or a conference time, though, since teacher's usually have their hands pretty full while the children are in the classroom.
This ended up being way longer and more detailed than I thought it would be! If you got all the way to the end, I hope you gleaned a least one or two pearls of wisdom from it. I think I could write a whole book on this topic. Maybe with all this extra time while Jack is at school I can...hmmm...